Ignored by youth-obsessed Hollywood, older audiences flock to indie films

In a summer stuffed with blockbusters aimed at young audience, arthouse films appeal to an older demographic because the stars reflect the audiences

Halfway into Warcraft: the Beginning, the video game adapted by Duncan Jones into a wannabe sci-fi franchise, Glenn Close appears as some kind of oracle. Swathed in a black cloak and with CGI-enhanced black orbs for eyes, she spouts some foreboding nonsense and then shes off.

The blink-and-you-miss-it role is quite a comedown for a six-time Oscar nominee, but at least Close got a part at all. This year, Hollywood seems to have largely shunned more seasoned actors, along with older moviegoers.

Out of the many releases by major studios to have opened this year, only one was headlined by an actor over the age of 60: Dirty Grandpa, which stars Robert De Niro and of which the Guardians Peter Bradshaw said: This gross-out comedy takes De Niro fans into a new emotional phase that I can only call post-despair. However, the film wasnt aimed at De Niros fellow baby boomers, but at the youthful fans of his ripped co-star, former High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron.

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins. Photograph: Nick Wall/PR
Another exception is Meryl Streep, who stars in
Florence Foster Jenkins, a period drama from director Stephen Frears about the worlds worst opera singer. The film was well received by critics when it was released in Europe in the spring; viewers in the US will have to wait until August.

Faced with such few worthwhile options in the multiplex, older moviegoers have opted to flock to the arthouse theaters instead, making their presence known in a big way. Of the top 10 most profitable independent films to play in cinemas in 2016 so far, seven are aimed strictly at adults, many of them centered on characters age 60 and over.

The drone warfare thriller Eye in the Sky, which stars Helen Mirren, rules the roost with a domestic gross of $18.5m. Its followed closely by Hello, My Name is Doris, a surprise smash for Sally Field, who hasnt had a big screen lead role in decades. The comedy has so far amassed $14.3m, making it the highest-grossing film to have ever premiered at the SXSW film festival. Even better: it was only made for $1m.

At 81, Maggie Smith is meanwhile the oldest Dame in the top 10, thanks to the success of The Lady in the Van, currently the fourth-biggest indie hit of the year. Susan Sarandon also features, with her widow drama The Meddler doing robust business, putting the film in ninth place on the list.

Maggie Smiths The Lady in the Van is a hit for Sony Pictures Classics. Photograph: Nicola Dove/NDOVE

This phenomenon is not new: older audiences, starved for Hollywood content that speaks to them, have been making the arthouse their entertainment go-to destination for years. Theyre the reason Mirren topped the 2015 specialty box office with Woman in Gold, a Holocaust drama. The year before, they made St Vincent a hit for Bill Murray.

Tellingly, both films were tepidly received by critics, leading to the conclusion that their target demographic are likely to flock in droves simply because they exist. They dont even have to be that good.

The older audience is an audience that really likes to go to movies and continues to go to movies on a regular basis, explains Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the independent distribution company behind The Lady in the Van and The Meddler, as well as last years Grandma, which stars Lily Tomlin. Older audiences tend to have more time on their hands to be a habitual moviegoer.

In all the change weve had in the movie business, the fact that the older audience still likes to go to the movies, is solid ground, adds Eric dArbeloff, co-president of Roadside Attractions, responsible for distributing Hello, My Name is Doris. Theres definitely an audience for [older-skewing] movies.

Despite these assertions, dArbeloff says the independent arena often faces the same kind of prejudice that keeps Hollywood from catering to older viewers.

When we bought Hello, My Name is Doris, there were people saying its cute but it doesnt have commercial legs, says dArbeloff. That kind of cynicism you face all the time. Theres a lot of resistance to kind of embrace the success of these movies.

And yet its impossible to ignore their popularity. The grosses, when compared to those of studio releases, are of course paltry. Indies, however, rarely come close to playing in as many nationwide cinemas as Hollywood fare. Plus the marketing spends are far lower. In short: they hardly stand the chance of matching their studio cousins. The fact that many have even come close, and that they star actors like Field, Smith and Sarandon, is a big deal.

Susan Sarandon in The Meddler. Photograph: PR
Surely a film tailored for an older market is bound to perform even stronger than its arthouse counterparts, when backed by Hollywoods bells and whistles. So why arent major studios following suit?

Because if they dont get it right, then the audience can be very small, argues Anne Thompson, Indiewires editor-at-large, whos been covering the business side of the industry for more than 20 years in Los Angeles. Those types of movies are execution dependent, and [studios] hate that. Theyd rather have a franchise, a film that is for men and women, young and old. Theyre going to get a bigger audience in theory and thats what they aim for, especially in the summertime.

Adds dArbeloff: All of these projects get green-lit based purely on economics, and so often they have to do with whats selling at Walmart, how are they doing in China, etc. What fits into these models is really tricky. Im not saying theres no room for change, but its probably not an accident that you see the choices being made that you do.

DArbeloff is predictably unconcerned by Hollywoods tendency to aim wide rather than old, considering the market the independent arena has cornered.

I think its exciting that theres now a niche here for us, he says. I like that we found our space.

Hollywood doesnt appear too eager to invade that territory any time soon. Apart from Bad Santa 2, which sees Billy Bob Thornton returning as a crusty Santa Claus impersonator, and Inferno, the third film in The Da Vinci Code franchise headlined by Tom Hanks, studios are largely betting on younger actors and more youth-centric storylines to bring in the masses through to the end of the year.

One glimmer of hope: it was recently announced that Mirren will be featured in the eighth Fast and the Furious film next summer. Will an older audience, likely unfamiliar with the franchise, even turn out? Thats a whole other story.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/02/youth-focused-blockbusters-older-audiences-independent-films-arthouses

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